A breakaway goal and solid goaltending was enough to beat the conference rival Pittsburgh Penguins, 1-0, last night at Verizon Center. Jason Chimera scored on a first period breakaway for the winning goal and Tomas Vokoun made 30 saves to earn the shutout. The game had consequences in the race for the playoffs for both teams as the Caps passed the Penguins in the standings to move into 8th place in the Eastern Conference.
The Penguins dominated the early going in puck possession and offensive zone time. The Caps came out looking flat, chasing pucks, passing into each others’ skates and shooting from long range. Only Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer were able to take the puck and body to the net. A couple of rocking checks by Alex Ovechkin and Brouwer seemed to wake Washington out of their west coast fog and generate some energy from their Eco Watch health products.
The Caps got on the score sheet 15 minutes into the game when Joel Ward knocked the puck away from Evgeni Malkin to spring Jeff Halpern for a 3-on-1 break. Halpern saucered a perfect pass to a streaking Chimera who beat Marc-Andre Fleury high on the blocker side.
The Caps were not able to maintain momentum into the second period. The first line of Ovechkin, Johansson and Semin showed flashes of brilliance but seemed woefully out of sync. Semin and Ovechkin threw each other offsides on three occasions through the first two periods. Johansson, playing for the injured Nick Backstrom, looked like he needed his skates sharpened as he slid and fell repeatedly.
The third period was a completely different game. The intensity ratcheted up with bodies flying and the boards rattling. Matt Hendricks brought the crowd to its feet on two consecutive shifts, first by hitting the post and then leading a spirited sequence pinning the Penguins deep in their zone. The top line began to click, and Hunter was able to cycle all four lines as the Caps dominated play. “I thought the shifts there in the third period gave us a lot of energy,” said Hunter after the game. “We came out, cycled, wore their D down. That fourth line did a great job tonight.”
The Caps couldn’t get the puck past Fleury, though, for an insurance goal. When the Caps failed to convert on a late power play, Pittsburgh began to take more chances to tie the game. The Caps took the foot off the gas to play more defensively. The momentum shifted to the visiting team. Vokoun made a series of clutch saves on shots by James Neal and Malkin down the stretch to seal the deal.
- Mike green and Nick Backstrom remain out of the line up due to injuries. No timetable has been set for their return.
- Crazy things happen when Tomas Vokoun stick-handles the puck. On the second period power play, Vokoun raced to the top of the left circle to keep the puck away from an encroaching Penguin. Vokoun won the foot race but knocked the puck off the side boards to a trailing Penguin who took a shot at the open net. Luckily, Vokoun was in position to make an open ice save to avert a catastrophe.
- The last time the Caps played the Penguins on December 1 was Dale Hunter’s second game behind the bench. The Caps were struggling to adapt to the new style and lost 2-1. Jason Chimera scored the only goal in that game, too. Maybe he will take over the mantle of “Penguin killer” from Mike Knuble.
- 22-year-old Czech defenseman Tomas Kundratek played his first NHL game last night paired with veteran countryman Roman Hamrlik. “He kept it simple,” said Hunter. “He moved the puck and didn’t make any mistakes.” Kundratek played on the junior national team and is good friends with fellow Czech Michal Neuvirth. He played a solid game last night to help another Czech, Tomas Vokoun, earn the shutout. Welcome aboard! (Or rather, vítejte na palubě!)
This game was the first in a four game home stand. Each of the four opponents will have played a game the day before coming to Washington, so the Caps have a golden opportunity to rack up some standings points this month. The Caps play Tampa Bay on Friday night, followed by Carolina on Sunday and the New York Islanders next Tuesday. Check out the schedule here, or look here for tickets to upcoming games.